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Sea-Tac airport may allow Uber, Lyft and Sidecar to start picking up passengers if new rules are passed.
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Uber and Lyft are not yet legally allowed to pick up riders at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, but that could change in early 2016.

Photo via UberX
Photo via UberX

The Port of Seattle Commission met earlier this week to discuss the latest updates to a series of rules and regulations that would allow transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft to conduct pick-ups at Sea-Tac.

If that paragraph sounds familiar, well, that’s because it is. Port officials have spent more than six months figuring out a way to give TNCs full access to arriving airport passengers but also keep a level-playing field for all ground transportation providers — taxis included.

Currently, existing taxi regulations prevent services like Lyft and uberX — Uber’s cheaper offering with vehicles driven by everyday people — from making pick-ups at Sea-Tac. However, an exclusive 5-year contract with Yellow Cab, which required the company to pay a minimum of $3.67 million or 13 percent of its annual gross revenues from airport pick-ups to the Port, expired this October.

Before taking request-for-proposals on a new contract — either from Yellow Cab or other for-hire transportation companies — the Port wants to see how TNC pick-ups will affect demand and supply. In the meantime, it signing month-to-month agreements with Yellow Cab.

Port officials are also working on a number of agreements with Uber and Lyft, which were legalized to operate in the City of Seattle in July 2014. One other TNC participating in discussions with the Port is Wingz, a ride-hailing platform that only does pre-arranged trips to the airport.

You can hail a Lyft from Sea-Tac, even though the Port does not allow pick-ups yet.

The Port Commission, which controls the regulations, met in both May and September to discuss changes that would allow Uber and Lyft at the airport, but the ban still remains in place today as it develops new rules and also crafts an RFP for the new exclusive for-hire contracts. The Commission hinted that TNC pick-ups would be approved this summer, but delayed any final decision

Uber, which has gone so far as to hire outside taxi services to pick up users who request rides at the airport, has built a geo-fence around the airport on its app to prevent uberX passengers from hailing rides there. Lyft, meanwhile, still allows riders to hail a ride from the terminal, as you can see from the screenshot to the right.

Mark Reis, managing director of Sea-Tac, told the Commission this week that there is a draft term sheet on the table with 11 separate items. The TNCs and Port agree on six of them — the other five issues are still up in the air. Topics yet to be agreed upon include the per trip fee TNCs will pay the Port; location of TNC pick-up areas; and an environmental requirements for TNC vehicles.

The Port also wants to ensure that Uber and Lyft will be able to share their trip data.

“TNC operating agreements will include stringent terms that require specific methods for the reporting of operational activity with frequent auditing,” notes a memo sent from Aviation Operations to Port of Seattle CEO Ted Fick on Nov. 30.

The same memo notes TNC operations being legal by Jan. 1, but Reis backtracked on that date during the Commission meeting this week.

“We mistakenly used a date of January 1st, 2016 as when we believe the TNCs would be able to operate,” he said. “That’s the date we think we’ll be able to get the staging area for them on the third floor of the garage in place. It doesn’t mean it’s the only piece of the puzzle to make this work.”

Mark Reis.
Mark Reis.

An initial blueprint allocates 70 stalls for TNC vehicles on the third floor parking garage, nearby where other ground transportation providers like taxis and limos are allowed to pick up passengers.

Reis and Port commissioners reiterated this week that they want to maintain a level-playing field for all companies. If it allows Uber or Lyft to do pick-ups at the arrivals terminal, it wants to open that option up for all others, too.

“We need to insure that if some of the ground transportation providers can drop off passengers in front of the terminal, then they should all be able to drop off there,” Reis said.

Added Reis: “A level-playing field is not always a completely easy thing to define, but we are doing our best job to do that as we work with TNCs and make it possible for them to operate at Sea-Tac.”

uber-logoThe Port also wants TNCs committing to some type of environmental pledge that will reduce emissions and/or congestion on the roads. It already requires its taxi providers to use only high-efficiency vehicles; an identical requirement wouldn’t make much sense for a company like Uber, but officials still want to hold TNCs to a high level, environmentally speaking.

Commission Co-President Stephanie Bowman said that she “can’t back away from the environmental goal.” She noted that allowing TNC pick-ups will reduce deadheading — when a TNC drops a rider off at Sea-Tac but cannot take someone back to the city — but added that companies like Uber and Lyft simply increase the amount of vehicles coming to and from the airport.

“I appreciate the technology side of it, but it’s really going to hurt our carbon footprint one way or the other,” she said.

Brooke Steger
Brooke Steger at the 2014 GeekWire Summit.

Uber, meanwhile, is certainly becoming impatient with the entire process, writing a letter to the Port last month expressing its frustration.

“It is indefensible that TNC [transportation network company] drivers, like those operating on our uberX platform, are uniquely unable to pick up passengers at Sea­Tac —­ even as those same drivers safely drop off thousands of passengers at Sea­Tac every week,” Uber’s Seattle general manager Brooke Steger wrote in a letter sent last month to Port commissioners.

When asked for comment this week on the latest developments, the company’s tone was a bit less harsh.

“We look forward to operating at the airport in January and we’re happy that the commission is receptive to the wishes of riders and drivers who want safe, reliable rides and more economic opportunities,” Steger said in a statement.

Reis said he’s hoping to finalize the contracts in the “next couple of weeks,” which would likely legalize TNC pick-ups some time in January.

There several airports in cities like San Francisco, Portland, and San Diego that have already established regulations to allow for TNC pick-ups.

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